Google CEO Eric Schmidt has shown a predisposition toward frankness in his answers to journalists’ questions.
He’s even exhibited wit at inopportune times, joking about people’s privacy, which typically private people, and the privacy advocates who try to get everyone riled up, found to be no laughing matter.
So I’m curious as to how Schmidt viewed this comment to The Daily Beast from Marissa Mayer, the company’s new head of local products, including Google Maps and local search:
“We ultimately know we need to get social right. If you think about the Web, there are four key platforms–search, video, mobile and social. Google has done really well in three of those four. And we haven’t gotten social right yet. But we do need the context of who your friends are and who you know. I think there are various ways we can work toward that.“
Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock in Silicon Valley, or even been tucked too far in the corner in Silicon Alley, you know this isn’t news.
We, the media, beat you over the head daily with stories about how Google is building products called Google Me, Emerald Sea and +1 to challenge Facebook, which is now the most popular Website and is sucking the air out of online minutes.
So the idea that Google hasn’t gotten social right isn’t news–just look at Google Buzz. It’s a fact that, for the first time, a top Google executive charged with improving Google’s local products with a social bent, has admitted the company’s failure to execute in social.
So let’s light a candle for Mayer’s honesty and hope Schmidt, and or Messrs. Larry Page and Sergey Brin don’t look unkindly on her candor.
No, seriously, let’s mull what Google is doing to combat Facebook. Mayer calls it “contextual discovery,” and it really has the potential to be huge.
The trick is getting enough users to opt in to it, which has been a problem on Google Buzz and Google Latitude, two lukewarm Google social services.
In contextual discovery, or “search without search” in Mayer’s parlance, Google will use your location, based on the GPS in your cell phone to feed you suggestions about what to see or do, or where to eat. Here’s where the social comes in, as Mayer told the Beast:
“Another sort of contextual discovery Mayer’s hundreds of developers are working on will take your location and give you “social” information. For example, at a restaurant, you might see a marked-up version of a menu on your phone, based on experiences and recommendations of your friends and/or by people who go there regularly.“
Add in the Google Goggles application, which now solves Sudoku puzzles, by the by, and you’ve got an interesting solution that arms you with more information to help you make better decisions.
Again, Google’s biggest challenge, especially in light of last year’s Buzz fiasco, where it took license with user privacy, is providing a seamless way for users to try the service without locking them in. They should be able to try it, and if they don’t like it, leave at once.
This isn’t about Google beating Facebook. You don’t beat the leading social network without a network of your own.
But Google has too many smart people, like Mayer, to not be able to provide some sort of sticky social offering to appeal to at least some of its 1 billion searchers.
I’m certain the company can provide a useful social service that millions of people may want to try, and, if it’s lucky, get them to stick around.